Month: April 2016

‘Mad, Mad, the World’s Gone Mad’ — Wagner’s ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ as ‘American Idol’ Song Contest (Part Five): And That’s the End!

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The Kodak Theatre where American Idol took place
The Kodak Theatre where American Idol took place

Act Three: “The Final Showdown”

Second (and last) Scene of Act Three: The setting is inside St. John the Baptist Church, re-fashioned and re-designed to look like the interior of the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, where the American Idol finals normally take place. A brief interlude between Scenes i and ii allows for a change of venue from the inside of Randy Jackson’s Imported Shoe Emporium to the above-named place of worship.

It is mid-afternoon. Bright sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows and into the church’s pews. The setting is, basically, the same as that of Act I, only the church has been festooned with streamers, flags, colorful ribbons lining the benches and aisles, and a veritable riot of signs and posters. Los Angeles itself appears to have come out for the big finale to the American Idol Song Contest.

A gospel choir is in full “hallelujah” mode, singing and clapping up a storm. A Baptist preacher is there too. The pews are packed with worshippers and onlookers, along with a fleet of media types, photojournalists, and gossip columnists. Trade guild members from every walk of life are present as well, including various union activists, i.e., Local 22, who hold up “Strike Now” signs. There’s a union vs. labor feel to the proceedings, à la the movie Norma Rae (“Union Now!”), that sort of thing.

Gospel Choir on American Idol
Gospel Choir on American Idol

In addition, announcer Ryan Seacrest, the original host of American Idol, can be spotted in his role as a roving, onstage “commentator” on the action. He goes from spectator to spectator, thrusting his microphone into the faces of individuals and asking them for their opinions as to what’s going on.

Trade guild members are also clamoring for attention, gesturing to Seacrest to come hear their side of the story. “Hey, man, we all in this together!” they shout, as each group recounts their experiences of living and working in the City of Angels.

Meanwhile, William Hung enters the church, followed closely by his immigrant co-workers. They spot some young parishioners among the aisles and, in as “gentlemanly” a fashion as their native customs will allow, escort the girls to their places.

The co-workers warn William to watch out for Kelly Clarkson, who happens to be seated across the aisle and is jealously eyeing him. Hung smacks himself upside the head and absentmindedly waves goodbye to the girls.

Next, we have the Dance with the Apprentices. This can take the form of “The Fly Girls” (with JLo and Carrie Ann Inaba prominent among the dancers) in the manner of Keenan and Damon Wayans’ sketch-comedy series from the 1990s, In Living Color; or a tribute to the Super Bowl half-time show with Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson doing their shtick in time to the music (even the titillating breast-revealing number!!!).

The Fly Girls from In Living Color: JLo (lower center) & Carrie Ann Inaba (far right)
The Fly Girls from In Living Color: JLo (lower center) & Carrie Ann Inaba (far right)

Either way, after the Dance is over everybody makes way for the Entrance of the Mastersingers. Yes, all ten of ‘em, made up to resemble those pop stars of old, the traditional keepers of the American Idol flame: Elvis and Frankie, Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Simon and Garfunkel, and, of course, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson picking up the rear. During the Silentium portion of the program, onstage trumpeters dressed as Mexican mariachi players, with huge sombreros and fancy outfits, astound the crowd with their musicality.

There are placards galore hoisted about: “We love you Clay,” and “Simon Sucks!”, “Hooray for Randy,” and “Paula, You’re the Best!” Guest appearances by Britney Spears, Shakira, Madonna, Michael Jackson, in short all of Los Angeles’ best known headliners are here in one hefty basket.

Randy steps up to the platform to deliver a few prepared remarks. As he’s about to speak, the crowd rises in their pews to intone the great “Awake” (“Wach’ auf”) chorus, which is played fairly straight. Moved by their rendition of the hymn, Randy hems and haws until he regains his bearing. He rattles off his musical philosophy of life, trying his best to sound humble amid the flamboyance of the other participants.

In conclusion, Randy praises the elderly Clive Davis for his vision and foresight in conceding to the rule change that gave Paula the final say in who she can marry. Simon Cowell, alone and to the side, tries mightily to memorize the words to Randy’s “Morning Song.” Fumbling and fussing, he checks his iPhone, and then goes over to Randy, all the while complaining about the indecipherable lyrics and strange imagery inherent in the number. “Damn you, Randy Jackson!” he gripes. Randy snickers to himself. “That cat’s gonna get himself into a shit-load o’ trouble.” Now Elvis stands up and states that the show must go one.

Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul & Simon Cowell
Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul & Simon Cowell

Jay Leno comes around to loosen the audience up before Mr. Cowell gets up the nerve to sing. At long last, it’s Simon’s turn to make his case. Mounting the podium, he complains to the ushers that it’s too unstable. “Can somebody fix this damn thing?” he orders. Immediately, four or five of the ushers prop up the stand. The crowd can’t help but make snide remarks about Simon. All is in readiness. “Let ‘er rip!” shouts Elvis.

Simon whips out his Fender Stratocaster, which appears to be in working order. That is, until he starts to finger the strings. Hmm, a bit out of tune, he muses to himself. As he begins his song (to the same melody as the one used in his disastrous wooing of Paula the night before), Cowell blurts out the line: “Morning has broken like the first morning / Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.”

“Huh?” the crowd wonders. “What in heck is this? Cat Stevens? He’s channeling Cat Stevens? Has he lost his mind?” Coming from his mouth, everything sounds askew. Simon makes a meal out of Clay’s dream. Even the Mastersingers are perplexed by this apparent faux pas, but they allow it to continue: “He’s a Master, after all.” Yup, he sure is! “Jack of all trades, Master of none!” somebody shouts back at them.

This goes on for a couple of perilous moments, until the crowd is unable to restrain itself. They burst out laughing at the preposterousness of Simon’s words, which are nothing but nonsense in his hands. Simon has had enough. He steps off the platform in a fury and, shaking his fist at Randy, accuses him of being the author of this so-called song. He makes a hasty exit, as the crowd turns to Randy and demands that he provide an explanation.

Simon Cowell on the brink
Simon Cowell on the brink

Keeping his composure, Randy disputes the claim of authorship. In fact, the song as written is really quite lovely. Nobody believes him, and the Mastersingers second that emotion. “Simon doesn’t know what he’s talkin’ about,” Randy declares. “This here’s a Master Song if ever there was one. And I can prove it!”

It’s Jackson to the rescue. He boldly introduces the newly minted Mr. Aiken, who steps out from the noisy crowd of onlookers. He’s all decked out in white from head to toe. “Now, then, here’s your author in the flesh. Let him show you what a REAL master musician can do with that tune.”

Clay starts to strut his stuff. He belts out the “Morning Song” with everything he’s got. Paula Abdul, who’s been fairly quiet until now, comes up to the podium and takes her place next to the Mastersingers (in Simon’s empty music stand). She temporarily acts as one of the song-contest judges which, coincidentally or not, she happened to be before Clive Davis “adopted” her.

Clay Aiken belting it out to the rafters
Clay Aiken belting it out to the rafters

With Simon laughed off the stage, William Hung (who’s already done his exceedingly poor Ricky Martin medley) gets a good belly laugh out this turn of events. After Clay has sung his wooing song, the crowd hails him as the winner of the contest. In like manner, the Old Guard Mastersingers charge Clive Davis with rewarding the victor his spoils.

Davis comes down the aisle to offer Aiken not only the American Idol statuette, but a multi-million dollar record contract deal! Incredibly, Clay turns down the offer, much to the consternation of, well, practically everybody. “Don’t call me, I’ll call you!” he cries.

Just as the disgusted Clay is about to step off the podium, Randy once more saves the day in praise of American pop culture. “Man, you shouldn’t make fun o’ the Masters. They’re offering you a golden opportunity. Don’t be turning down their generosity. Shoot, I know, they can be a bunch a bores, but look at all the good they done. Why, without their art, where would pop music be? In the toilet, that’s where!”

The crowd agrees with Randy’s assessment of the situation. Everyone present joins in, in praise of pop music in general and the American variety in particular. At the rabble-rousing close, the Gospel Choir re-emerges to sing a happy tune, as well as a surprise appearance by the King and Queen of Soul: James Brown and Aretha Franklin.

Swinging in time to the final chorus — in a good-ole-fashion happy hour, in full-blown Evangelical revival-house style — they bring down the curtain to waves and cheers from the multitude, and to the Mexican mariachi band’s trumpet blasts. Everyone motions in time to the music.

Clive Davis, Clay Aiken, Kelly Clarkson & Ruben Studdard of American idol
Clive Davis, Clay Aiken, Kelly Clarkson & Ruben Studdard of American Idol

Clay, now getting his Mastersinger medallion from Clive Davis, steps onto the extended platform between the stage and the aisle, and raises his arms in triumph in the iconic American Idol pose. Flashbulbs and cell-phone cameras go off all over the stage, as if a million photographers were snapping everyone’s pictures at once. The houselights come down and the following line scrolls above the proscenium:

There are six million stories in the City of Angels …. This has been one of them.

Lights out!

Final Curtain

(For the background history, plot analysis, and musical commentary utilized in the writing of this essay, I am humbly indebted to the following sources: The Opera Lover’s Companion: Die Meistersinger, written by Paul Nettl, sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc., edited by Mary Ellis Peltz; Opera on Record: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg compiled by Richard Law, edited by Alan Blyth; and Wagner Without Fear: Learning to Love – and Even Enjoy – Opera’s Most Demanding Genius, written by William Berger, published by Vintage Books) 

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

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‘Star Wars,’ the Original Series (Part Five): ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (and How)

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Chewie, Leia, C-3PO & Han Solo onboard the Millennium Falcon
Chewie, Leia, C-3PO & Han Solo onboard the Millennium Falcon

Once More unto the Breach!

Having helped Luke Skywalker out in the Rebel Alliance’s plan to rid the universe of the evil Galactic Empire — amid the whizzing of laser-blasters from a swarm of dedicated TIE fighters — Han Solo and Chewbacca step forward with young Luke, C-3PO, and R2-D2 to receive their prize from a beaming Princess Leia in the sequence that closes Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope. THE END.

So that’s it? Is there nothing else? Well …. yeah!

We know from the decades of merchandising and over-exposure that George Lucas, the saga’s originator and one-track-minded filmmaker, had a sequel in mind whereby the characters and situations he originally conceived as a USC film student would continue to undergo new challenges in this fanciful sci-fi world.

Most fans are aware that the full title of the initial Star Wars story, if I may be allowed the privilege of repeating it, was The Adventures of Luke Skywalker as Taken from the Journal of the Whills: Saga One: The Star Wars. That’s a meal and a mouthful in itself! One can hear the studio heads at Twentieth-Century Fox clamoring for a shorter working title; so Star Wars it became, albeit with Episode “X” or “Y” appended in.

The first sequel, known officially as Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, is darker in both tone and mood than its immediate predecessor. The color palette, made up primarily of grays, blues, and blacks, is maintained throughout. Indeed, this shadowy ambiance can be found in the picture’s shifting mise en scène, whether it be in caves, tunnels, corridors, storage rooms, or walkways, or the interior of a runaway asteroid.

More internalized than the earlier feature, Empire is much more preoccupied with re-familiarizing the viewer with its iconic characters than in grinding out the mechanics of the plot. At its core, Episode V is the most organically structured chapter in the entire series in that the characters develop according to the requirements of the constantly evolving story line.

As well, there is a noticeable improvement in the level of understanding between one individual and another. For instance, Han Solo, that tall and handsome rogue of a smuggler — a man who lives by his wits — is utterly taken with Leia’s feisty personality and ability to stand up for herself.

For her part, Leia is equally captivated by the “scruffy-looking” scoundrel, but is reluctant to admit her interest in him, even to herself — a typical Hollywood formula where “hate” means love at first fight. Granted, Han’s lowly station as a brigand may have been a hindrance to the development of a more permanent relationship, as if that mattered in their particular set of circumstances.

In contrast to this squabbling duo (the space-age equivalent of Ralph and Alice Kramden), our hero Luke has begun the process of realizing his full potential via the ability to move objects at will. He desires above all to become a Jedi Knight like his father, Anakin Skywalker, before him — a notion planted into his cranium by none other than Obi-Wan Kenobi.

C-3PO & R2-D2 in the underground rebel base
C-3PO & R2-D2 in the underground rebel base

The subsidiary cast of C-3PO and R2-D2, and, in a comparable sense, both Chewie and Han (and later Lando Calrissian), continue to play the comic relief: manservant and maid, skinny and fatty, what-have-you; an ersatz vaudeville team without the song and dance. Their verbal patter, a running joke throughout the series, is mildly suggestive of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First,” yet saturated with high-pitched squeaks, garrulous techno-babble, and inarticulate snarls. In sum, they each take turns playing Laurel to the other’s Hardy (and vice versa).

Another Classic Film-Score Moment

As the picture begins, we hear the Oscar-nominated John Williams fanfare on the soundtrack. This and other motifs were based in part on themes taken from the golden age of Hollywood movie-making, among them Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for Kings Row, the opening “Mars” movement of Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, Miklos Rozsa’s Entrance of the Charioteers from Ben-Hur, and Elmer Bernstein’s music for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

Words scroll above the screen, the influence of Flash Gordon and Saturday matinee movie serials: “It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker have established a secret base on the ice planet Hoth …” Lord Vader has become obsessed with finding young Skywalker who he knows to be strong with the Force. As a consequence, “Vader has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space” in order to uncover the boy’s whereabouts.

With that, a number of probes are launched from below the Imperial Star Cruiser. One of them crash lands on the surface of the ice planet. At that same instant, Luke appears. He’s riding a tauntaun — sort of a ram-horned camel crossed with a kangaroo, an excellent example of traditional stop-motion animation perfected by the late Ray Harryhausen (see the following tribute to the artist: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/ray-harryhausen-the-last-voyage-of-an-fx-master/).

Luke Skywalker on his tauntaun, calling into Rebel Base
Luke Skywalker on his tauntaun, calling into Rebel Base

In the process of investigating, Luke and the tauntaun are attacked by a vicious Snow Creature who drags him inside its lair. The extended scenes in the “Special Edition” DVD/Blu-ray show the beast greedily devouring a bloody meal and, to be honest, are pure overkill. To escape the same fate, Luke uses the Force to grab hold of his lightsaber which is just out of reach. When the Snow Creature advances, Luke slices off its arm, much as Obi-Wan Kenobi did to that unruly troublemaker at the Cantina Bar in Episode IV. Incidentally, the Snow Creature is nothing more than a humongous Muppet (portrayed by Des Webb).

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Meanwhile, Han returns to the rebel base on Hoth (in reality, the Scandinavian country of Norway). He and Leia have an obvious attraction for one another, but resist it at every turn. Han knows there is a price on his head, placed there by the loathsome Jabba the Hutt. One would think, after being handsomely rewarded for coming to the Alliance’s aid, that Han would have paid the debt off by now. But noooo!

He bids adieu to the Princess, goading her on with sarcastic asides and false deference to her authority (“Your Highnessness,” “Your Worship,” and so). She, on the other hand, is perturbed at his leaving in the middle of a revolt. They engage in the first of many quarrels. However, underneath the bickering we hear a love theme which telegraphs their true feelings for one another. It will sound again at the end of the picture in full symphonic glory.

Han & Solo have a "lovers" spat
Han & Solo have a “lovers” spat in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

After Han is informed there has been no communication from Luke, he resolves to look for him in the subfreezing storm. Right on cue, we see Luke running off into the icy blizzard. It’s at this point that Obi-Wan Kenobi’s spirit appears, when the boy is most in need of his services (remember that Ben was “killed” by Lord Vader in their last encounter). We expect the old geyser to go on spouting New Age advice. Instead, Ben charges Luke with a new task: he’s to go to the Dagobah system and seek out Jedi Master Yoda.

Obi-Wan’s image fades away into that of the approaching Han Solo on his tauntaun. With Luke left blinded by the snowstorm and delirious after his vision, Han slices open the frostbitten tauntaun and exposes him to the warmth of its innards. Offhandedly, Han remarks that he was under the impression tauntauns “only smelled bad on the outside.” Whew! Was he ever mistaken!

Fortunately, our adventure seekers are found — how could it be otherwise? There wouldn’t be a series to speak of if these two had perished so soon after the start. Luke’s scars from his encounter with the Snow Creature are clearly visible. In fact, they were the result of actor Mark Hamill experiencing a serious car accident prior to filming. Coincidentally, as a young man Lucas had been the victim of his own near fatal racing-car crash. Taking his star’s condition to heart, Lucas took advantage of the bit with the Snow Creature (he denies the script was altered in any way) in order to utilize the very real disfigurement on Hamill’s face.

We Kiss in a Shadow

While recovering in sickbay, Luke is visited by Han and Leia. To make Solo jealous, she plants a kiss on Luke’s mouth. In fairy tales, it’s usually the prince who gets to kiss the princess, not the other way around. No matter. Chewie chuckles to himself at Solo’s discomfort as Han bolts from the room in pursuit of the Princess.

Leia kisses Luke, while Han & Chewie look on
Leia kisses Luke, while Han & Chewie look on

Alerted to the rebels’ presence by another probe, the inhabitants of the base make final preparations to abandon their stronghold. After saying his farewells, Luke mounts one of the X-wing fighters as he and the other pilots get ready to help the rebels escape.

The battle to end all battles now takes place, with ground troops, fire arms, Imperial walkers (giant mammoth-like land rovers), and Star Destroyers participating left and right and at breakneck speed.

Back on board Vader’s flagship, General Veers (Julian Glover, a dead ringer for rocker Sting) reports they have emerged from hyperspace a tad too soon, thus tipping off the Alliance. Vader is not amused by the news. By the way, the miniature work here and in the battle on the ice is exemplary.

An interesting side note: rebel pilot Wedge replaces Biggs Darklighter, who perished after being fired upon by Darth Vader. As R2-D2 is lifted aboard Luke’s X-wing fighter, his robotic pal, C-3PO, takes the opportunity to express a little motherly concern for the droid and for Master Luke. They do care for each other, you know, but in a most “humanly” fashion, despite being preprogrammed automatons.

The battle rages on! Luke blows up one of the walkers. At the same time, General Veers blasts the power generators to smithereens. Finding themselves trapped below ground Leia, Han, Chewie, and 3PO have no choice but to board the Millennium Falcon in order to make their escape. One thing leads to another, when at last Vader makes his entrance in grand style (in pretty much the same manner as he did in Episode IV) by blasting through an impregnable door (well, not so impregnable). Storm troopers attempt to shoot it out with them, but they manage to avoid annihilation. Their world now comes crashing down around them.

On board the Millennium Falcon, the frustrated 3PO can’t seem to get a word in edgewise, or rather (from Solo and Leia’s viewpoint) he won’t shut the hell up. And that damn hyperdrive can’t seem to function at all, another running joke. To escape the pursuing TIE fighters, Han resolves to lose them in the asteroid field, to wit the chances of successfully navigating are “3,720 to 1.” Luckily for the crew, Han and Chewie are able to maneuver the fast-moving vessel into one of the many craters on the largest asteroid.

R2-D2 & Luke are surprised by Master Yoda
R2-D2 & Luke have a visitor: Master Yoda (right)

Meanwhile on Dagobah, we find Luke and R2 stepping cautiously along the moss-drenched swamp that covers the planet’s surface. This scene may remind viewers of a similar one in Ridley Scott’s Legend, which came a few years later —it certainly seems likely that both scenes were shot at Shepperton Studios in England. There’s even a swamp thing lurking just below the water’s surface that tries to swallow poor R2. He becomes a flying projectile when the creature decides to spit him out. A muddy mess!

One can’t say if this sequence refers to an earlier one in Episode IV, but it definitely calls it to mind. Luke, Leia, and Han are trapped inside a trash compactor. With the walls about to close in, Luke is abruptly sucked down into the compactor’s watery bottom by a tube-like, one-eyed serpent. Thanks to Han’s blaster, he escapes in time to contact R2, who happens to be locked on to a computer mainframe. Good work, R2!

Back at the swamp, out of the blue little Yoda decides to make his long-awaited bow. He’s a most curious and ill-tempered intruder. And he sounds suspiciously like Fozzie Bear, and why not? He happens to be voiced by master puppeteer Frank Oz, the same fellow who gave life to Fozzie, Miss Piggy, and numerous other denizens of Sesame Street.

Yoda is more comical here than elsewhere in the series, so enjoy it while you can, folks: it is only an act. You see, Master Yoda is a most studious follower of the Force. He may pretend to be cranky and irritable, but his purpose has been well defined by the screenwriters. He’s the High Lama of the Jedi Order, charged with teaching young Skywalker the ways of the Force.

Rising in the Ranks

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Lord Vader has a completely different set of priorities. He too may appear to be calmer and more resolute in this episode than he was in the previous one. Nevertheless, Vader’s displeasure at the ineptitude of the Imperial Cruiser’s crew has grown by leaps and bounds.

Having botched the surprise attack on the rebel’s base on Hoth, Vader handily disposes of the “clumsy as he is stupid” Admiral Ozzel in the same way he tried to teach Commander Motti from Episode IV a thing or two about the Force’s power: by making him choke to death.

Admiral Ozzel & Captain Piett have a face-to-face with Lord Vader
Admiral Ozzel & Captain Piett have a face-to-face with Lord Vader

In that earlier encounter, Governor Tarkin prevented Motti’s demise with a sharp rebuke, but not here. There is no Tarkin to restrain Vader’s wrath: he was blown to kingdom come, if you recall, along with the first Death Star. In this sequence, however, the ambitious Captain Piett is forthwith promoted to admiral in Ozzel’s stead. And, in a later scene, Captain Steeka falls to the floor to breathe his last after losing track of the Millennium Falcon. “Apology accepted,” Vader notes in a contemptuous aside.

No matter how one takes this kind of action, the dreaded Dark Lord of the Sith delivers an ultimatum to the recently promoted Piett: “Don’t fail me again,” he intones, all the while pointing a gloved finger at the admiral. Wow! How’d you like to work for a boss like that? Vader makes Donald Trump’s tossing off of his signature “You’re fired!” phrase on The Apprentice seem like child’s play.

All we can say is this: the revolving chain of command on board an Imperial Star Cruiser was plenty tough during those long ago and far away Empire days….

(To be continued…)

Transcript of dialogue from the original screenplay by Leigh Brackett, revised by Lawrence Kasdan and taken from the novel by George Lucas

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Met Opera Odds and Ends: ‘Hansel and Gretel’ — A Baker’s Dozen and Children’s Delight

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Gretel & Hansel: Having their cake at the Met(classicalsource.com)
Hansel and Gretel: Having their cake at the Met (classicalsource.com)

Those Were the Days…

Incorrectly termed a “children’s opera,” Engelbert Humperdinck’s charming yet deceptively simple retelling of Hansel and Gretel — or, in the original German, Hänsel und Gretel — holds a special place in my heart: as a youngster, it was the first opera I ever saw performed live and onstage.

I remember sitting in the auditorium transfixed by the event, unable to take my eyes off the performers or from the colorful sets and flashy costumes. I was completely immersed in the liveliness of it all — the music, the dancing, the sprightly song content, and (for me, anyway) the fantastical “special effects”: the haunted forest, the gingerbread house, the sandman and dew fairy, and of course the evil old witch. I was especially curious to learn how the witch was able to fly through the air with the greatest of ease (she used a harness, darn it).

I also fondly recall the memorable song-and-dance number little Gretel taught to her brother Hansel at the start of the piece. It had something to do with clapping your hands and tapping your feet. The melody turned out to be one of those instantly recognizable tunes that once heard would never be forgotten. In its own way, the song served a similar purpose as the one Anna Leonowens sang to her young son in the Broadway musical The King and I:

Whenever I feel afraid

I hold my head erect

And whistle a happy tune

So no one will suspect I’m afraid

Both Anna and her boy, along with Gretel and her brother, had a lot to be afraid of. Anna had recently arrived from England to become a teacher to the children and household of the mighty King of Siam (our present-day Thailand). For their part, the nearly starving Hansel and Gretel would get lost in the woods and find they had become a tasty meal for a wicked witch. That was enough to scare the bejeezus out of most kids, including this one!

That was many years ago, of course, back in the heyday of the New York City public school system in the Bronx, where I lived, studied, and grew up. I can’t tell you where, exactly, I saw Humperdinck’s wonderful work — that’s too far back for me to recall. Now that I think about it, it might have been a student production at the Bronx High School of Science, located near the Jerome Park Reservoir, and sandwiched between the Kingsbridge and Van Cortlandt Park sections of the borough. But don’t ask me to swear on a stack of bibles, because I can’t. All I know is that we were driven by bus to a remote locale and told to take our seats in a large assembly hall of a place I had never been to before.

In any event, the production was sung in English, which was a blessing in disguise for us opera initiates. In my day, there were no such modern-day contrivances as supertitles or real-time translations on the back of people’s chairs. Going to and appreciating the opera became an art form in itself that I, for one, took rather seriously. But that was much later in life. At that point in my public school “career,” all I wanted out of the trip was to sit back, relax, and enjoy the program, which I found entertaining and mirthful.

Engelbert Humperdinck, composer (brooklyn.cuny.edu)
Engelbert Humperdinck, composer (brooklyn.cuny.edu)

By way of background introduction to Hansel and Gretel, Engelbert Humperdinck (no relation to the British pop star) was a German composer who wrote the score between 1890 and 1893, to an original libretto fashioned by his sister, Adelheid Wette, who in turn based this “fairy tale opera” on the Brothers Grimm story.

In adapting the work for a wider audience, Humperdinck removed some of the more ghastly aspects of the plot (i.e., the Mother’s pretext for sending the kids off into the forest was to starve them to death!), while adding the beloved characters of the sandman and dew fairy, along with 14 guardian angels who watch over the pair as they sleep at night.

Originally, Adelheid had asked brother Engelbert, a serious musician and follower of Herr Wagner (he had tutored the master’s son, Siegfried, for a time) to provide the musical numbers for a puppet show her children were planning to put on — a simple request, right? Well, then, one thing led to another and within a relatively short time a full-scale operatic vehicle was in the works. Humperdinck expanded the original concept, resulting in a richly flavorful score fit for theatrical consumption.

The first performance of the work was given on December 23, 1893, in Weimar, Germany. It was conducted by composer Richard Strauss (ten years younger than Humperdinck), the heir apparent to the Wagnerian mantle and himself a future beacon as to where German opera would be headed upon Wagner’s demise a decade earlier. We’ll be hearing Strauss’ one-act wonder Elektra in a few weeks, so listeners can judge for themselves whether he earned his stripes or not.

Although Strauss may have done Humperdinck a huge favor in presenting his work in a most favorable light, in the long run he quickly overtook Engelbert in the compositional arena. In truth, Humperdinck is mostly known to audiences for this, his earliest stage piece. More recently, the composer’s Königskinder (“The King’s Children”), another fairy-tale opera that came immediately after Hansel and Gretel and made a rousing 1910 debut at the Met, has been revived in both European and American opera houses with a fair amount of success.

‘Tis the Season!

Returning to Hansel and Gretel, here’s an example of a work that, although not necessarily related to or even directly involved with the Christmas season, has had an unusually strong association with the Judeo-Christian holiday throughout its performance history. In this country at least, this association came from its having been the first complete radio broadcast of a lyric work by the Metropolitan Opera Company, on December 25, 1931 — Christmas Day, for all intents and purposes.

That historic broadcast, hosted by announcer Milton Cross and moderated by New York Times critic Olin Downes, would go on to set the standard for what was to become a regular Saturday afternoon gathering of opera lovers from across the country and around the world. Strangely, on that same occasion Hansel and Gretel was paired with Leoncavallo’s highly dramatic opus, Pagliacci — about as different a double bill as one can get. However, the Leoncavallo work was not transmitted, which represents a lost opportunity in that the cast included such Met stalwarts as Giovanni Martinelli and Giuseppe De Luca. For shame!

We may sigh over that omission, but Hansel and Gretel, sung in German at this juncture, was given the royal treatment by Met Opera General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza (pictured below on the far right side, with his hand in his pocket). The production featured sopranos Editha Fleischer and Queena Mario in the title roles, dramatic soprano Dorothée Manski as the Witch, baritone Gustav Schützendorff as Peter the Father, and mezzo-soprano Henriette Wakefield as Gertrude the Mother. The conductor was Karl Riedel.

From the newspaper clippings of this and an earlier test broadcast, composer and well-known radio personality Deems Taylor provided the running commentary. Animated film fans may remember Mr. Taylor as the narrator and host of Walt Disney’s Fantasia from 1940.

Christmas Day cast of Hansel and Gretel, 1931 (operanews.com)
Christmas Day cast and crew of Hansel and Gretel, 1931 (operanews.com)

Many positive telegrams and letters were received by the Met management praising the company for its efforts in this vein. However, an equal number of correspondents protested the presence of Taylor’s voice during the live transmission. One listener famously inquired: “Is it possible to have Mr. Taylor punctuate his speech with brilliant flashes of silence?” According to TIME magazine, in later broadcasts, “Narrator Taylor was less garrulous.” How fortunate for all!

Where Would We Be Without Our Tradition?  

In the past, traditional productions of Hansel and Gretel adhered to a mezzo or dramatic soprano Witch, with the requisite broomstick, warty nose, and pointy hat. Most up-to-date interpretations employ the services of a character tenor in the part — to good effect, it must be maintained. Some memorable men in drag who gave vibrant life to Rosina Dainty-Lips were Paul Franke, Andrea Velis, Charles Anthony, Graham Clarke, and Philip Langridge.

The enjoyable Met Opera version by producer Nathaniel Merrill and set designer Robert O’Hearn, which served the company well for nearly 45 years, boasted a bass-baritone, the German-born Karl Dönch, as the Witch at its premiere on November 6, 1967. In addition, the casting of major roles was spot-on perfect, with Rosalind Elias and Teresa Stratas endearing as the brother and sister act. Later casts included the teaming of Frederica von Stade with Judith Blegen, and that of Tatiana Troyanos with Catherine Malfitano. They all made handsome Hansels and girlish Gretels to charm the pants (er, dress) off any Witch, male or otherwise.

Tenor Philip Langridge as the Witch (operainamerica)
Tenor Philip Langridge as the Witch (operainamerica)

The Met’s current Richard Jones adaptation, first unveiled in December 2007 and formerly mounted at Welsh National Opera, updates and modifies the story to the 1950s. In the process of transformation, it created some incredibly imaginative, surrealistic stage pictures, at times in opposition to the text. Not to fear: the superlative new English translation (by librettist David Pountney) lends a wicked touch of darkness to the piece. The new cast starred Alice Coote as Hansel and Christine Schäfer as Gretel, with the aforementioned Mr. Langridge as the Witch, Alan Held as Peter, Rosalind Plowright as Gertrude, and conductor Vladimir Jurowski in the pit. The show was a hit with the public, and a little less so with critics.

One thing this production got right was to reintroduce those presumably lurid moments, such as the children’s punishment for refusing to do their chores and the sibling’s well-timed “execution” of the Witch by burning her alive in her own oven (always worth a round of applause). In line with the above incidents, some of the childhood themes this version explored included the Mother’s self-medication, the excesses of over-indulging one’s appetite for baked goods, and the escalating effects of poverty and hunger on one’s mental capacities. As you can see, this was not just a simple bedtime story but a harsh lesson in hazardous living.

Other outlandish details — for example, the drop-curtain of a large plate with knife and fork, which converts to a gaping tooth-filled mouth with a protruding pink tongue at the start of Act II — will remind viewers of the moral to the Grimm Brothers’ dark tale: “Be resourceful, face your fears, have courage in the face of difficulties.” It can also inform us to be kind to your mommies and daddies, or bad things can happen to those who disobey. Huh, I’ll say they can!

Another innovation was the bizarrely sumptuous Dream Pantomime sequence in which a fish-headed maître d’ served up a gargantuan banquet of gastronomic treats, escorted by a team of giant-sized cooks designed to resemble the iconic Chef Boyardee figure whose face was omnipresent on cans of ravioli. Well, then, if tenors and baritones can transform themselves into witches, why not make guardian angels into chefs?

Fish & Chefs at the banquet table (Photo: Sara Krulwich / NY Times)
Fish & Chefs at the banquet table (Photo: Sara Krulwich / New York Times)

Alas, much has changed since I first saw this opera in the Bronx. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed and that I will never forget: and that is, Gretel’s cheery little song to calm her mischievous brother:

      With my foot I tap, tap, tap

      With my hands I clap, clap, clap

      One by here, one by there

     Round you go without a care

                (English Translation: Lewis Reynolds)

 Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Four) — Foreign Travels Without His Aunt

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Johnny Depp & Vanessa Paradis (thesun.co.uk)
Johnny Depp & Vanessa Paradis (thesun.co.uk)

Adventures in Paradis

Having befriended the trippy gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in real life — and whose funeral expenses he would pay for upon the drug-addled author’s untimely 2005 passing — Johnny Depp continued to push the outside of the envelope as far as it could go with respect to his choice of film roles.

The excitement and anticipation of a new millennium — more specifically, what those expectations might bring in the way of a possible course-change in his career ambitions — were telegraphed in the hugely popular star’s next round of cinematic forays.

Similarly, Johnny’s personal associations also began to normalize. Exuding a somewhat calming effect on his high-flying lifestyle, in 1998 the actor met and started a live-in relationship with French-born singer-actress and model Vanessa Chantal Paradis. The by-product of their 14-year partnership would result in two new additions to the Depp household: a daughter, Lily-Rose Melody Depp (born in May 1999), and son John “Jack” Christopher Depp III, who was born in April 2002.

Fatherhood and all the customary encumbrances that went with it appeared to suit Depp’s newfound outlook on life quite well, thank you. “Johnny is the perfect father,” Vanessa Paradis would claim in a 2002 Elle magazine article. “He dresses the children, he makes them laugh… [But] he does give Lily-Rose too many potato chips.”

Too many potato chips? She should be so lucky if that’s all there was to complain about, given his past notoriety. There’s an unwritten rule that as an actor’s domestic life improves (sometimes, by leaps and bounds) one’s craft tends to suffer along with it. Well, then, like anything else that concerns the acting profession, we believe there exists some level of “truth” to this parable.

In Johnny’s case, while it may have influenced his performance to a noticeable degree in such family-oriented features as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and particularly the emotionally draining Finding Neverland, the pictures he participated in before and after he set up shop in the Plan de la Tour region of southeastern France were basically all over the map in terms of story line and character development.

Depp & Theron in The Astronaut's Wife (and matching hairdos)
Depp & Theron in The Astronaut’s Wife (and matching hairdos)

For starters, take the big-budget sci-fi thriller The Astronaut’s Wife from August 1999, written and directed by Rand Ravich and co-starring South African-born actress Charlize Theron. In the picture, Johnny had his hair bleached blond (to transform himself into an all-American boy?), while Ms. Theron cut hers to resemble Mia Farrow’s crew cut. Talk about a lack of family values, this obviously derivative combination of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) crossed with Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate (1997) — to include several ripped-off segments from the Alien saga — was a certifiable bomb at its initial release.

It’s creepy and it’s kooky, and altogether loopy, with both stars giving substandard performances of a slow-moving screenplay hardly worth bothering about. To top it off, the “shock” ending was as lame as they come, something writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (with all due respect) might have thought up had he been consulted on the matter.

As Depp’s first in a series of FX-laden, budget-heavy productions, The Astronaut’s Wife took in nowhere near the amount it was expected to make, nor did it earn back what was expended in its making. Did that bit of disappointing box-office news stop Johnny from seeking further challenges along the psychological horror-film front? Not on your life!

A Devil of a Time

As a matter of fact, his next entry would be directed by that old schlockmeister Polanski himself. How’s that for “good” timing? The Ninth Gate (1999), billed as a supernatural mystery thriller, was shot on several European locations in and around France, Spain, and Portugal. Real castles (or châteaux) were used as backdrops for many of the outdoor scenes.

Johnny as Dean Corso in The Ninth Gate (1999)
Johnny as Dean Corso in The Ninth Gate (1999)

Despite the exotic locales Johnny played it safe, remaining calm, cool and collected, and properly subdued much to producer-director Polanski’s annoyance. Depp’s character, Dean Corso, was supposed to be a New York rare-book dealer and part-time con artist. So how would it look if the guy went off the deep end every time a wealthy client approached him about retrieving some long-lost copy of an ancient manuscript, including one purportedly written by Beelzebub?

Along with Depp, former leading man-turned-character actor Frank Langella was hired for the part of the myopic Boris Balkan, that wealthy client mentioned above who harbors an all-too-visible penchant for dusty-old books. Lena Olin played a rich widow named Liana Telfer, with James Russo as Bernie Rothstein and Barbara Jefford in strong support as the Baroness Kessler. The director’s main squeeze and current wife, Emmanuelle Seigner (Frantic, Bitter Moon), was mysteriously billed as “The Girl” Johnny has sex with outside one of those spooky-looking castles. Hmm …

The movie starts off well, with a convincing atmosphere of dread and gloom pervading the action, sets, and color palette, ideally provided by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, City of Lost Children). Polish composer Wojciech Kilar’s groaning, eerie-sounding film score, suggestive of the excellent one he did for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, helps to maintain the unsettling mood.

Soon, however, we are introduced to what Village Voice critic J. Hoberman termed “barely releasable hokum, stuffed with cheesy blah-blah” via satanic devil-worship and all sorts of occult-like razzle-dazzle. This is where things start to unravel, especially towards the end. The late Chicago Tribune movie critic Roger Ebert’s crack about the “fade-to-white” finish holds especially true.

Still, this was also the spot where Johnny got to meet and greet Ms. Paradis, so it wasn’t a total loss (if you get my drift). In the future, he could work closer to home as well as be near his growing brood and sprawling two-million-dollar estate.

Career-wise, most reviewers agreed that Depp had performed well under Mr. Polanski’s direction, despite so-called “creative differences.” He even sported patches of graying hair on both sides of his temples to portray the 40-something Corso. Now THAT’S acting, folks, or at the least total role immersion.

Way to go, Jack!

This is Halloween

Or maybe we should change that to Jack-o’-Lantern in deference to his next project, Sleepy Hollow, also from 1999. Directed by Tim Burton, with a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and a powerful organ-based score by frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman (who also did the music for Burton and Depp’s Edward Scissorhands), this screen adaptation of Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, was a direct homage to Britain’s Hammer Studios and their blood-soaked horror output of the late 1950s to 1960s.

Hammer Studios, you may recall, was renowned for their bloody-good recreations of those time-honored Universal monster classics Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy, in addition to side trips involving Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The difference, however, lay in their full-color splatter effects, oozing guck from open wounds, and Victorian ladies’ tight bustiers bursting to overflowing. Sex, blood and gore: that’s the ticket!

A thorough re-imagining of Irving’s tale, this newest edition of the Sleepy Hollow yarn (a place this writer once visited as a boy, and which cartoonist Walt Disney felt the utmost pleasure in animating) was filmed in Merry Olde England, naturally. Production values and craftsmanship there, along with small-town village ambiance, were said to recapture the spirit and essence if not the literal letter of the story better than in the real Tarrytown, in spite of numerous deviations in the script.

Depp was signed on to play the sniveling, snipe-nosed pedagogue Ichabod Crane. Proving far too handsome to embody Ichabod as the original author had conceived him, Depp and Burton hit upon the novel idea of reshaping the character into a New York City police inspector who employs the most “modern” of scientific techniques to track down and capture the killer who’s been lopping off the heads of the helpless citizens of the titular town.

Depp as Constable Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow
As “Constable” Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

Deemed too “prim and proper” by some reviewers, Depp nevertheless excelled as a colonial Sherlock Homes-type who wades far too deeply into Sleepy Hollow’s tawdry familial ties for his own good. It’s been rumored that Johnny modeled his finicky, nerve-wracked portrayal of Constable Crane on the shakiness of former child actor Roddy McDowall, to include some of his vocal ticks and inflections. There might even have been a bit of Norman Bates, but I do digress.

“I always thought of Ichabod as a very delicate, fragile person,” Johnny confided to the supermarket tabloid Entertainment Weekly, “who was maybe a little too in touch with his feminine side, like a frightened little girl.” This would account for Ichabod’s frequent fainting spells at the slightest provocation. Johnny’s particular gift was in making this cowardly lion into a sympathetic, albeit clownish adversary to the hellish Hessian known as the Headless Horseman.

The washed-out, monochromatic color scheme and hazy look of the picture was credited to Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who was feted in February 2016 with a third Academy Award for his back-to-back efforts (i.e., Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant) for directors Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The visual FX by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and the Headless Horseman green-screen effects by Kevin Yagher (story credit), complemented by Rick Heinrichs and Peter Young’s Oscar®-winning production designs and Colleen Atwood’s superb period costumes, came together to make this a meaningful endeavor.

Although Johnny was the obvious star of the proceedings, the cast assembled for the outing read like a laundry list of Hollywood’s finest supporting players, or Central Casting gone amok: from Michael Gambon as Van Tassel, Miranda Richardson as Lady Van Tassel, the always dependable Jeffrey Jones (along with Heinrichs, a Burton regular) as the periwig-wearing Reverend Steenwyck, Richard Griffiths as Magistrate Philipse, and a slimy Ian McDiarmid as Dr. Lancaster, to the dyspeptic Michael Gough as Notary Hardenbrook. Odd that for a town predominantly settled by Dutch descendants, there wasn’t a native Dutchman or woman in sight.

There were, however, brief but memorable turns by octogenarian Christopher Lee (a Hammer Studios alumnus), Alun Armstrong, Martin Landau (unbilled), Lisa Marie, and Christopher Walken as a pointy-toothed Headless Horseman (doubled by stuntman Ray Park). Among such lofty company, only a far too low-key Christina Ricci failed to impress as Katrina Van Tassel.

Bloody fingertip: Depp with Marc Pickering & Christina Ricci in background
Bloody fingertip: Depp with Marc Pickering & Christina Ricci in background

With deft ensemble work, credit must also go to casting directors Susie Figgis and Ilene Starger for assembling such a uniformly excellent company of players. And let us pay homage to the more junior members of the group, including the adorably dimpled, dark-haired Sam Fior as Young Ichabod, Marc Pickering as Young Masbath, Tessa Allen-Ridge as Young Lady Van Tassel, and Cassandra Farndale as the Young Crone.

Burton upped the ante on the blood and gore quotient to rival the best horror that Hammer had to offer, including a fairly gruesome gnarled tree that serves as the entranceway to Hell itself. What that studio once lacked and that he and Johnny introduced into Sleepy Hollow was a good deal of black humor that made the horrendous portions more (gulp!) … digestible???

There were even gentle reminders of Edward Scissorhands in Crane and Katrina’s blossoming romantic relationship (on and off the set, so we are told). The ghoulish Grand Guignol aspects would reassert themselves a few years later in Burton and Depp’s 2007 interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Julio Mazzei, the Cosmos and the Untold Story of the Man behind the Glasses (Part One)

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Who’s That Guy?

Professor Julio Mazzei (left) & Franz Beckenbauer
Professor Julio Mazzei (left) & Franz Beckenbauer (Photo: Getty Images)

Less than a minute into the 2006 documentary Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos and simultaneous with the opening credits, the figure of an unidentified individual enters the frame.

He approaches from the extreme right-hand side of the screen. Wearing sweatpants, a green-and-white baseball cap, matching green-and-white jacket, and aviator-style glasses, the gentleman joins Cosmos winger Steve Hunt and midfielder Nelsi Morais in congratulating their team’s superstar, the incomparable Pelé. We see him mouth the word “GOAL!” as he moves in for an impromptu group hug of the above-named players.

In the blink of an eye he’s gone, to be replaced by other “golden-age” highlights of the era including familiar voiceovers and more than a few talking heads.

As the film progresses, this anonymous entity continues to put in an appearance at key moments in the story. And not just side-by-side with Pelé, but with the members of the extended Cosmos “family,” most notably Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, German midfielder Franz Beckenbauer, fellow Brazilian Carlos Alberto, Warner Communications chief Steve Ross, and a host of influential others.

He can even be spotted in numerous photographs, snapshots, video clips, and film footage covering the eight-year period from 1974 to 1982. In all, he is shown a grand total of fifteen times during the course of the feature.

Beckenbauer, Pele & Giorgio Chinaglia of the New York Cosmos ca. 1977
Beckenbauer, Pele & Giorgio Chinaglia of the New York Cosmos, ca. 1977

However, the most surprising thing about this person is that he is never labeled or acknowledged in any of the scenes or photos he appears in, not even when serving as Pelé’s interpreter at the legendary 21 Club in Manhattan.

No doubt there is a valid reason why this fellow is pictured so prominently (albeit fleetingly) throughout the documentary. One should add that the bespectacled gentleman in question remains the unsung “hero” of the Cosmos organization, one of several participants who helped legitimize the game of soccer in the U.S. — and who, along with a player named Edson Arantes do Nascimento, aka Pelé, made the sport what it is today.

That fellow is Julio Mazzei. And this is his untold story.

It’s been claimed that Mazzei and Pelé were bonded to each other in a uniquely symbiotic relationship. The Professor, as he was called by those who knew him (by virtue of advanced degrees in physical education, coaching, and sports and recreation), would often make light of his closeness to, and association with, the world’s greatest soccer player: “People assumed we were joined at the hip,” was how he jokingly phrased it.

But the joke was on them, for in ways both inevitable and prophetic it was their mutual participation in the sport that brought these two personable talents together.

Professor with Pele
Professor Mazzei with Pele (Photo: TheOriginalWinger.com)

Born on August 27, 1930 in the town of Guaiçara, in the interior of the state of São Paulo, Brazil, Mazzei came from a large family of Italian extraction. He grew up surrounded by sports, principally the one favored by his ethnic background (calcio in Italian, or futebol as Brazilians like to refer to it). While he was still small, the family moved to the municipality of Araçatuba, and later to Araraquara. It was in both these cities that Mazzei’s life-long passion for group sports and physical activity were cultivated and expanded.

In the early 1950s, Mazzei temporarily left Brazil to study at the Institut National des Sports in Paris. A year later, he and his bride, Maria Helena, traveled to Michigan State University in East Lansing, where Mazzei continued his postgraduate studies in sports education. Learning and speaking English was another of Professor’s principal achievements. In the interim, Dona Helena occupied herself with natural childbirth classes, which she took full advantage of later on in order to assist expectant soccer wives during their labor.

Professor became affiliated with Palmeiras Soccer Club in São Paulo around the year 1962, where his love of coaching and training was first put to the test. In 1965, after expressing dissatisfaction with the Palmeiras organization, Mazzei moved with his young family to the beachfront community of Santos in the capacity of the club’s conditioning coach and assistant trainer. This was also the team where the sixteen-year-old Pelé had gotten his start. In addition to which Mazzei was the assistant coach to the Brazilian national team from 1964 to 1965.

Julio Mazzei (far left) with coach Lula of Palmeiras F.C.
Julio Mazzei (far left) with coach Lula (center with cigarette in mouth) of Palmeiras F.C.

In the years before Professor and Pelé were invited to come to New York, Mazzei had developed the physical conditioning methods (known variously as Interval-Training and Circuit-Training) that would make him a known quantity in his native country. He would go on to guide that “goal-scoring machine” called Santos and, eventually, the New York Cosmos into the championship clubs they eventually became.

Upon leaving Brazil, Mazzei joined the Cosmos organization in 1975 as a fitness instructor and assistant coach, and in 1979 he became the auxiliary coach. He went on to serve on the board of directors from 1980 to 1982, when he was appointed the team’s head coach through November 1983. When he left the team, Mazzei had the highest percentage of wins of any of the North American Soccer League’s coaches.

None of this background is indicated or even hinted at in Once in a Lifetime. To those unfamiliar with Mazzei’s extraordinary contributions to the game, he’s a faintly elusive individual in soccer history, a somewhat shadowy behind-the-scenes figure who occupies the fringes of yesterday’s sports pages. This is a misconception the film inadvertently perpetuates and which this piece will endeavor to correct.

In my mind, the real issue is why a man of Professor’s unquestioned qualifications and repute went unmentioned in the 97-minute retelling of the decade-long rise and precipitous fall of the Cosmos soccer team and the accompanying North American Soccer League.

For that, we must delve into the documentary itself.

No Fat Ladies Allowed, Only Fat Men

1977 Cosmos: Carlos Alberto, Steve Hunt, Bobby Smith & Pele
1977 Cosmos: Carlos Alberto, Steve Hunt, Bobby Smith & Pele

The opening montage of Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos shows a variety of individuals talking about the team, and about the “best and worst of what soccer in America was” back in the mid- to late sixties. Narrated by actor Matt Dillon, directed by Paul Crowder and John Dower, and written by Mark Monroe, with the story credited to Mr. Monroe and Mr. Dower, the documentary is basically a tell-all record of the brief time when soccer first captured the attention of American sports fans.

We learn that soccer was imported to the U.S. by immigrants who came through the gates of Ellis Island. Much like the millions of other ethnicities that over a century ago came to this country, soccer was the property of “hyphenated” Americans: Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, German-Americans, Greek-Americans, and Slavic-Americans (even us Brazilian-Americans). No matter where they came from or what language they spoke, the thing these new arrivals had in common was their love for the game.

By way of comparison, the documentary mentions the copious starts-and-stops in American sports, for example, when seen on television and as demonstrated by those frequent breaks for commercial messages. These are contrasted with soccer’s continuous ebb and flow with no natural breaks — except, of course, for halftime activities and timeouts for unexpected injuries.

Shifting gears, we transition to tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano singing the aria, “Nessun dorma” (“No one sleeps”), from Puccini’s last opera Turandot. “What is opera doing in a documentary about an American soccer team?” you might ask. As near as we can figure, it may have been an unsubtle signal about how the Cosmos players, including their top-drawer goal-scorers, would spend their “off hours” partying into the night. But that was still to come!

Soccer is likened here to a two-act play, whereby the game is concentrated into two action packed halves of 45-minutes duration each, with a 15-minute interval in between. Be that as it may, initially there was no passion for soccer in America during the first half of the twentieth century because, as strange as it may seem (especially with all those new arrivals) there was no soccer at all — certainly not in 1960. We’re told the U.S. was a barren landscape for the sport, which I can personally vouch for.

Enter Mr. Steve Ross, a charismatic, highly successful businessman who went on to develop the media aspects of the game from scratch. Ross did this before those titans of cable-TV land, Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch, had begun to make their own mark in the broadcasting field.

Ahmet & Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records fame
Ahmet & Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records fame

There were others beside Ross who actively campaigned to transform the American brand of soccer into something else entirely — specifically, two brothers from Turkey, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, who founded the R&B label, Atlantic Records. They brought to the northern hemisphere a fanatical devotion to the sport as well as a knack for spotting latent talent.

Moving on to the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley Stadium between England and West Germany, England won the game in overtime. As an impressionable twelve-year-old boy, I distinctly remember watching the final with my father and younger brother on ABC-TV, the only network that transmitted the live event to our apartment. At the time, football was about to enter its prime, with the Super Bowl and some extremely successful teams flourishing and coming into their own. This made the competition for ratings and TV airtime fiercer than ever.

Four years later, a pivotal matchup occurred between two-time champions Brazil and Italy at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico City where Pelé made his final tournament appearance. Unlike the previous cup, this time there wasn’t a single TV station in the greater metropolitan area that bothered to show either the qualifying matches or the final. For that, our family had to take the IRT subway line to Madison Square Garden to see the games on giant closed-circuit screens.

In the meantime, Ross brought the Atlantic Records division into the Warners fold and with it the Ertegun brothers’ worship of the game. With Brazil’s third World Cup victory fresh in their minds, these two farsighted entrepreneurs saw the potential for starting a homegrown soccer team literally from scratch. In fact, they were unabashed in singing the sport’s praises to a somewhat skeptical but willing-to-try-anything Mr. Ross.

Steve Ross getting his "kicks" at Giants Stadium, the Meadowlands
Steve Ross getting his “kicks” at Giants Stadium, the Meadowlands

As a result of their efforts, Clive Toye was hired as general manager of the nameless team. Almost immediately Toye began to recruit players. But what the franchise needed above all else was a catchy name and a star attraction. Once the “Cosmos” moniker was agreed upon, British head coach Gordon Bradley was welcomed aboard in 1971. Back then, the newly christened team was comprised of such unknowns as Werner Roth, Shep Messing, Randy Horton, and a ragtag collection of semi-professionals. As the saying goes, big things come from small beginnings. And they couldn’t have come any smaller than this bunch.

From its conception the Cosmos had been playing their matches at Hofstra University in Long Island. To persuade the fans to come to their games, Ross made the shrewd decision to move the team closer to the city, to Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island. That was in 1974. Despite this bold maneuver, the Cosmos still needed a high-profile player to draw the crowds and make both the team and the league as financially lucrative as possible.

But who would be willing to join a no-name, startup soccer league in America — and for what price?

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes